Review: Despair, (A Journey into Light) (1978)
dir Rainer Werner Fassbinder, starring Dirk Bogarde
Screenplay by Vladimir Nabakov and Tom Stoppard
Cinematography by Michael Ballhaus
by Paul Murphy
“Philosophy is a creation of the rich.”
Dirk Bogarde plays Hermann Hermann, a Russian émigré businessman who owns a chocolate factory in Berlin between the wars. The film opens with Hermann discussing the right-wing newspaper magnate Alfred Hugenburg, with one of his employees. The backdrop of the film, the rise of the Nazis, is not intrinsic to the development of the plot, which is focussed on the internal development, or collapse, of Hermann Hermann. Hermann is determined to be a survivor, his psychological collapse is meant to echo the events of the era, yet the story might also be set in any period. Hermann finds a doppelganger, a labourer named Felix, who he believes to resemble him completely. He then exchanges identities with this person and shoots him. He escapes to the Alps, where reality and the film that he believes to be unfolding in his own mind, become entwined. Finally he is caught by the police. The film ends with Hermann Hermann repeating the words “I´m coming out” over and over again.
Unlike Saatansbraten and Chinesischesroulette, Despair is primarily a star vehicle rather than a Faßbinder, Ballhaus or Nabakov film. Bogarde takes over the film displacing the director, making the film flowing, believable, charming, unpretentious, but in so doing looses all of the crazed innocence present the earlier films. In a sense Despair could be grouped with other Dirk Bogarde films about the Third Reich, such as Visconti´s The Damned or Cavani´s The Night Porter. For Bogarde had become typecast in the mid-70s as a German bourgeois or industrialist suffering or being made to suffer at the time of the beginning of the Third Reich. Bogarde´s performance is the film. He makes wealth believable, emotions palpable, sexuality intriguing, even heterosexuality for Bogarde was not heterosexual. In other words he takes a Faßbinder film and forges it into an entirely convincing filmic experience. But it may also be true that Dirk Bogarde was the wrong actor for Faßbinder.
Despair is undoubtedly a very interesting, intelligently made film. Bogarde´s performance shifts it away from being merely another eccentric masterpiece by Faßbinder. For all that Faßbinder, with his customary pretension, willingness to be regarded as an avante-garde rebel, dedicates the film to Vincent Van Goth, Antonin Artaud and Unica Zürn, three tragic, schizophrenic artists, who beat against society and their times. In a sense Hermann Hermann does this too, but he is too stolid, solidly self-satisfied, yet dissatisfied to be considered in any category with Van Goth or Artaud. Essentially Hermann is no artist, even though he possesses a restless, shifting fantasy perception of reality. A reality which is beginning to change (because it does) as his Weimar era art deco abode shifts to the functionality and neo-classicism of the Third Reich. His wife Lydia, often portrayed naked, is an object for Hermann, yet she and the entire gallery of people who seem to infest Hermann´s house, seeming to come and go as they please, is also palpable, yet, in terms of her psychological development, essentially static. Hermann is dynamic in a world that is in a state of torpor but his dynamism, the thing that makes him an outsider in the world he occupies, isn´t something that really moves to any conclusion. For at the end of the film Hermann Hermann, his mentality, his motivations, are still almost entirely unknown to us. That is what makes the film so enigmatic. Hermann is a frail, unattractive character who somehow convinces us of the importance of the fact of personal survival against a backdrop of a disintegrating worldview.
Paul Murphy saw Despair, (A Journey into Light) at the Arsenal cinema in Berlin.
For more Faßbinder, read Paul's reviews of Chinese Roulette, Satansbraten and Insel der Blütigen Plantage and Die Ehe der Maria Braun.